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No opposition to post-COVID mass migration plan

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are adamant that mass migration is beneficial for Australia (image via YouTube)

The pandemic has stalled “big Australia”, even though Scott Morrison craves an early restart and Anthony Albanese is aboard.

On Budget eve, Josh Frydenberg showed his migration hand.

World-beating levels of mass immigration, the only policy that can prop up our GDP “growth” model, are definitely coming back. This year’s Budget is just as emphatic as last year’s.  

What about the jury-rigged COVID quarantine and vaccination programs? The 35,000 Australians stranded offshore and the rest detained onshore? Voter disquiet and a stressed-out environment? Struggling infrastructure and sky-high house prices?

In effect, Morrison’s response is: tell somebody who cares.

How can he do that? Well, he sits atop a bipartisan circle-of-influence that supports mass immigration. 

This self-reinforcing crowd is quite some list. Usually, it includes the Liberal Party, Labor and the Greens, Treasury and Reserve Bank, state and city governments, big business and property developers, the immigration lobby, “left” and “right” media, academia, unions and churches.

Mass immigration makes them feel or look good, enlarges their influence or wealth. 

Before the last Budget, Labor frontbencher Kristina Keneally briefly went AWOL. Cut the post-COVID levels of immigration, she pleaded. She was easily neutralised.

Contemporary Labor sits more comfortably in a reductionist or left-modernist frame. For them to seriously challenge mass immigration is certainly considered impolite and probably racist.

Since that last Budget, the Reserve Bank’s pro-migration Philip Lowe has wobbled.

Economist Ross Garnaut has supposedly switched to a lower-migration viewpoint, with journalist Ross Gittins and a few others in support. Yet the "palace revolution" (check New Zealand’s new population policy) still looks far off.

As usual, Australia's population plan is buried deep in Budget Paper No. 3. The Government and the Opposition can pretend these are just innocent, technical parameters. But they are actually Morrison’s political must-have, as sugar-spun by the Treasury secretariat.

The previous Budget had net migration rocketing back to 201,000 by 2023-24, implying population growth of 1.2%. This Budget isn’t budging.

And net migration for 2024-25 charts much higher at 235,000. 

Sure, 1.2% and rising is "no biggie" by brawny Aussie standards. It’s still double the going rate of OECD member nations. They’re not about to emulate Australia's economically and environmentally perverse Ponzi scheme.

The Treasurer’s Speech and 60-page Budget Overview provided no mention of his key economic or “industry policy” measure – mass immigration.

He knows the "circle-of-influence" welcomes this evasion. They collectively entreat us to look elsewhere at the somewhat overrated levels of big spending.

For the second Budget in a row, Albanese's Budget reply carefully avoids the population topic.

He stands tall for “boosting wages and lifting productivity”, even though mass immigration depresses both.  

Especially after COVID, population is one big issue on which the population ought to call some shots. For these two leaders, it’s private business. Net migration of 200,000 and rising is still considered normal and necessary.

But 200,000 net migration never happened before 2007, it’s more than twice Australia’s long-term average. It would return us to extraordinary immigration dependence as compared with major OECD economies.

21st Century productivity growth is really hard yakka against really strong headwinds. Instead, Australia simulates economic “growth” via endless population growth.

To have a better shot at achieving their 2.25% real “growth” in 2023-24, Treasury claims that mass immigration is necessary. 

If you factor in high educational and income inequalities, an overcommitment on the environment and under commitment on climate, can we still afford to aspire to Treasury-model 3% growth?

Couldn’t we keep immigration lower, in favour of genuine industry (and training) policy? Couldn’t we humbly sequester a bit more of that mind-boggling miners’ loot to cover off the deficit days?

Down Under, leaders readjust reality, in favour of regressive population and energy policy. As they fret over falling fertility, I half expect them to bring back the Baby Bonus.

Under a semi-permanent pandemic shadow, surely we wouldn’t actually reascend the migration heights? Don’t bet on that.

So far this year, non-citizens outnumber citizens in arrivals into Australia.

Morrison, like John Howard before him, will talk big borders and walk big migration. That’s how we got onto this “big Australia” treadmill in the first place.

With or without full-throttle international student intakes, Home Affairs and Immigration will do their darnedest to draw in the big numbers from somewhere. 

While Frydenberg offers the same old pabulum: “generous, sustainable” migration is “fundamental” to the Australian economy. In this narrative, predominantly skilled migrants generously create businesses and boost jobs, playing “a very important role across the economy”.

In reality, soon before COVID struck, temporary and student visas dwarfed permanent and skilled visas in net migration intakes. Even among the skilled visas, scarce skills weren’t being targeted and employment outcomes weren’t great. 

If the new parliamentary Leeser Report on skilled migration is anything to go by, expect similar voter deceptions when mass immigration resumes. For “skilled” entrants, that implies low wage thresholds and lax labour-market testing.

Simultaneous with the high immigration and 2.25% growth, Frydenberg is going to cut unemployment to 4.5% and stop wage stagnation. 

On immigration and employment, Frydenberg can pretty much say whatever without serious scrutiny. Unless the circle-of-influence fractures badly, there’s no easy way in for voter concerns. 

Indeed, reintroducing mass immigration would allow the Coalition to hit static Labor with their best fib of all: superior economic management.

Yet, as the obligatory suspension of mass immigration has demonstrated, the economy and employment can get by.

Nevertheless, the Treasury Secretary engages in overt political barracking, raising fears of an older and smaller nation, unless we dutifully submit to a “big Australia”. 

Speaking for the boss, he dismisses the rather successful “clinical trial” of little migration. That is, “big Australia” seems inaccessible to evidence and incapable of movement.

With Labor unwilling to change tack, even if it gave them a chance to govern, only COVID itself can shut down the game.

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and Canberra Times reviewer.

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